California Dreaming

'Don't believe what they say about California: it is still the matrix for our civilisation'

The Golden State has turned to brass — or so its critics say. Yet on a bright afternoon spent in the company of casually dressed techies, surrounded by ancient trees and frisky racoons, it suddenly hit me: the Californian way of life should be a model for our civilisation. No, I was not thinking of palm trees swaying in the sea breeze, curvy highways and tanned surfers. And I hadn’t had too much sun either.

“Why on earth would you want to adopt the ways of a community that is almost bankrupt, struggles with illegal immigration and is governed by a man who manages to be tragic in his failures and comic in his successes?” asked a New York friend after dryly welcoming me back “from the wilderness” and remarking with a smirk that Woody Allen in Annie Hall was right: the only good thing about California is that you’re allowed a right-turn on a red light. 

It was cool and grey when the plane approached San Francisco. A seven-hour trip always makes you a bit woozy (particularly when you’re cooped up in economy and are forced to experience flying with an American airline — apparently the only place in this country where you feel life is not about being properly served as a customer). After crossing several time zones, I felt as if I was in a parallel reality. And so, having left the hustle and bustle of New York far behind, and slowly descended over the Rocky Mountains which give way to the green valleys of northern California and the shores of the Bay Area, I felt I had discovered what makes this state tick — and, by extension, what makes our cultural imagination of the West so special and yet so fragile: the capacity to create a life lived to its fullest at the natural, reclusive, shadowy margins of civilisation, rather than in its midst.

After a drive down an eight-lane highway (green Priuses to the left, black limos to the right), I arrived in Palo Alto. It is said that it has the highest density of PhDs per capita in the world. It is the proud heart of Silicon Valley, which spearheaded the IT-revolution some 30 years ago. Stanford University is a brief walk away, and companies like Apple, Facebook, Google and Yahoo are dotted around, some hit by burst bubbles and the economic downturn yet surviving.

Palo Alto is its own little world and doesn’t offer much in terms of culture, unless shopping for gilded bathroom tiles is your idea of culture. The baffling thing is that this doesn’t really matter. This place harbours major forces that shape our present, leaving a distinct mark: specialised sciences, technologies (bio-, nano-, chip), engineering (mechanical, computer, genetic), together with Nasa research centres, create a peculiar force field, one that is at once synthetic and organic. Here, humanity is constantly on the move to a new kind of living, one that is no longer defined by old natural boundaries. Here, at the junction of geographical margin and technological frontier, is where the future is taking shape — in a palpable, visceral sense: a force you can feel in the atmosphere.

While I was living in Palo Alto a few years ago, I would often wonder what generated this deep feeling of being in tune with time and space. Friends at Stanford suggested it had something to do with the reclusiveness of this particular part of California, combined with big business, grand landscapes, great food and good weather. Others said it was due to the fact that this was earthquake country. What other way of living would be appropriate here?

It was only then, however, that Henry David Thoreau’s Walden made sense to me. In 1845, the author took up residence in a small house in a forest owned by his friend Emerson near Concord, Massachusetts: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life…and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live… as to put to rout all that was not life — to drive life into a corner. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it.” 

If it is true that in 2010 we are uncertain about life, perhaps a sense of certainty can only be found away from the established patterns of civilisation and modern metropolises at the margins of wilderness. Driving along the foggy Pacific coast, I thought: it is here that one can feel at once removed from life and at the centre of its most intense concentration. Living like a Californian doesn’t mean adopting the extravagant habits of a bankrupt state but taking a more organic attitude towards life that may serve as a matrix for our civilisation.

“There you go — a blinkered appraisal,” I can hear my friend in New York sneer. “You didn’t give us the dark side of the story.” But I was writing from California, I will respond.  They do things differently there.

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